May 2011 – An Experiment with an Air Pump

An Experiment with an Air Pump

Parlour Players, Sanderstead
Reviewed by Diana Eccleston

This play by Shelagh (Memory of Water) Stephenson, inspired by Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting of almost the same title, is a curious mix of scientific debate and detective tale.  Since its 1998 debut it has become a global hit and Parlour’s 30th anniversary production under Chester Stern’s careful direction illustrated why that is.

The time flips back and forth between 1799 and 1999 in the same house in Newcastle. In 1799 scientist Fenwick presides over turbulent family and friends while riots ensue outside.  In 1999 a scholarly couple are preparing to sell the house, disturbed by the discovery of human bones under the kitchen floor.  This put huge demands on the backstage crew but there were never any hold-ups in either set dressing or quick costume changes.

Simon Vines displayed his customary versatility as Dr Joseph Fenwick and modern day Tom, always bang on target with his comedy lines.  Sue Doswell partnered as his wife of both eras, most amusingly as the tipsy Susannah.  Michael Cooke was excellent as the smarmy, vile Dr Armstrong and a great contrast as genial Geordie workman Phil.  But it was Tamsin Reeve’s haunting portrayal of hunchbacked servant Isobel which will remain with me, remarkable for its exquisite delicacy: truthful and tragic in every nuance.

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